Folkmoot festival has lost a vital source of advertising money, jeopardizing its ability to lure visitors to Haywood County during the festival’s two-week summer run.
The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority announced its intention this month to yank its annual contribution to Folkmoot USA. The TDA has given Folkmoot between $6,000 and $12,000 every year since the festival’s inception in 1984.
Folkmoot President Chuck Dickson made a heartfelt pitch to the TDA board last week, asking them to reinstate the funding.
“Folkmoot has helped put Haywood County on the map and has definitely enhanced Haywood County’s reputation as a tourist destination,” Dickson told the 15 members of the TDA board.
TDA board members cited a still-slumping economy and overhead associated with a new downtown Waynesville visitor center as the culprits.
The festival turns Haywood County into an international bazaar every July, with more than 200 dancers and musicians from a dozen countries staging a series of performances and parades. The TDA funding is spent marketing the festival to audiences across the South.
Last year, Folkmoot only got a portion of what they requested — $6,000 of the $9,000 they were looking for — which covered just under a third of the $19,000 spent on advertising.
Cutting the contribution altogether would hurt Folkmoot’s ability to publicize the festival. Dickson said Folkmoot helps TDA achieve its own mission of luring overnight visitors.
“We put heads in beds — perhaps more than any other event in Haywood County,” said Dickson. “In 2010, 5,000 people attended ticketed events, 2,000 attended free events, and over 50,000 attended the parade and Festival Day, two events for which Folkmoot receives absolutely no money.”
Dickson came armed with both a crowd of Folkmoot supporters and an economic impact study done by Western Carolina University in 2008.
The study walks through the particulars of just how much money and business the festival pulls into the county, but the final total was over $4 million for the 2007 festival.
“These contributions not only increase the appeal of the festival from year to year, but help reinforce the attractiveness of the area in general and that of all other cultural events in the region,” summarized the study.
TDA cuts spurred by budget woes of its own
None of the TDA board members were arguing against that claim. In fact, several espoused the merits of having such a large and unique event housed in the county for such a long time.
However, they weren’t enamored enough to restore the funding.
The TDA board cited the same oft-repeated reason for budget cuts heard at the local, state and national levels of late: it’s the economy, what else can we do?
“It’s more about looking at harsh finances right now and looking at the bigger picture. I would rather give people more money, but we’re just in a situation with the budget and the money’s just not coming in,” said Jennifer Duerr, TDA board member and owner of the Windover Inn.
The TDA raises money with a 4 percent tax on overnight lodging, bringing in close to $1 million a year. As tourism has dropped with the recession, however, the TDA has seen its budget shrink by nearly $300,000 in three years.
This year alone, the TDA has come up $115,000 short of what it anticipated, leaving the agency struggling to make mid-year budget cuts.
TDA Board Member Ken Stahl floated the idea that Folkmoot lobby Buncombe and Jackson counties for contributions, but Dickson said that tactic was a bit of a long shot, given that they only put on a max of two shows in those counties.
The official suggestion was that Folkmoot apply to special pots of TDA money controlled by individual communities within the county. Maggie Valley, Waynesville, Lake Junaluska, Canton and Clyde each get a slice of TDA money to spend on pet projects, from concerts to brochures to micro-level marketing. A quarter of the total TDA budget is divvied up among the county’s five locales.
The TDA board told Folkmoot to take its request to the five committees that oversee the five pots of money.
Folkmoot has historically been paid out of the general fund since the festival is county-wide and holds events in literally each of the five locales, Dixon said. So which one would Folkmoot apply to? The board told Dixon to apply to all five.
The problem there is that those committees won’t have any cash to hand out until autumn at the earliest. In fact, grants for this round of funding were approved later at the same meeting.
Not everybody on the TDA board was in favor of cutting Folkmoot from the tourism agency’s general budget.
Mark Clasby, the county’s economic development director who also sits on the TDA, was vocally opposed to revoking the money.
“The recognition Folkmoot has brought to Haywood County is tremendous, and I disagree with the recommendation that you’re making,” Clasby told board members. “I think it’s wrong.”
Clasby said that Folkmoot is so well-known it’s one of the tools he uses to pitch Haywood County when he’s out courting business development for the county, and that if any organization deserves the money, it’s Folkmoot.
“I certainly understand the budget situation we’re all facing, but at least give them some funding and support,” said Clasby.
TDA Board Member Jennifer Duerr countered Clasby’s view, arguing that it’s just about a change in the way funds are given out, thanks to the economy. The dwindling general fund should be kept for county-wide causes, she said.
“It’s not that we want to not give the money, it’s just not there. Do we give the money to one event, or keep it to represent the entire county?” asked Duerr.
Other members voiced similar views, with Alice Aumen, the board’s chairperson, saying that this year’s budget has been particularly trying.
“It has been one of the most difficult years since I’ve been on the board,” said Aumen.
James Carver, owner of the Maggie Valley Restaurant and board member, said he’d love to give Folkmoot money this year, but that it just wasn’t there.
“I‘ve always been a big supporter of Folkmoot, but money’s down,” said Carver.
In the end, the TDA board gave Dickson and his compatriots their apologies and an invitation to come back and ask again next year, but if they were hoping for a check, they went away empty handed.
“What we would like to leave Folkmoot with is that it is an important event. We all hope it’s going to be a great year for travel and tourism and revenues are going to come up,” said TDA Board Member Sue Knapko, encouraging festival officials to come back again if the committees don’t work out.